Solar buildings: Harvesting the EU’s built environment for climate and industrial leadership

“Buildings currently represent about 36% of the EU’s GHG emissions and almost half of its final energy consumption. Decarbonising the building sector will be a critical driver to achieve carbon neutrality in Europe by 2050,” writes Miguel Herrero Cangas, Policy Advisor at SolarPower Europe.

Buildings currently represent about 36% of the EU’s GHG emissions and almost half of its final energy consumption. As such, the decarbonisation of the building sector will be a critical driver to achieve carbon neutrality in Europe by 2050.

The Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD) adopted in 2018 sets ambitious requirements for all new buildings (and those undergoing major renovations) to be Nearly-Zero Energy Buildings3 (NZEBs) by 31 December 2020. Notwithstanding, new buildings will only represent between 10% to 25% of the European building stock by 2050. However, it is not possible to tackle the climate emergency unless bold steps are taken to accelerate the decarbonation of the EU’s existing building stock – and that’s where solar roofs step in.

There is indeed a common denominator to almost all buildings in the EU: unused rooftop space. In the EU, only less than 10% of the available roof space is currently equipped with solar panels, reaching a total installed capacity of around 80 GW. However, the cost-effective rooftop potential of solar PV of existing buildings in the EU is huge, estimated to be about 680 TWh, or 25% of current electricity consumption, according to the European Commission.4 The available surface area that could be used productively is greater when considering Building Integrated Photovoltaic (BIPV) materials that can be applied beyond rooftops on building façades, and also be installed on buildings protected by cultural heritage rules. Installing solar on all new and renovated buildings in the EU can save up to 7 million tonnes of CO2 each year.

On top of this, solar roofs are a great help to complement energy efficiency measures at building level. According to the recently adopted Energy Efficiency directive (Article 7), up to 30% of annual final energy savings can be achieved with on-site generation.

Solar-powered buildings could bring significant gains in energy efficiency as well as improving health and air quality in urban areas. In particular, heat pumps combined with solar power will play a central role in driving solar-based electrification in residential buildings, whether directly installed in homes or used in district heating networks. On-site solar combined with storage, demand response, digitalisation and home automation appliances will guarantee a direct and stable renewable energy supply to Europe’s future building stock and will contribute to power system flexibility, providing valuable services to the electricity system.

Finally, the increasing cost-competitiveness of solar roofs make it a true driver to fight against energy poverty. Today in Germany, a typical four-person family household with an average annual electricity consumption of 3,600 kWh could save more than EUR 500 each year if equipped with an average sized rooftop solar system.

The benefits are clear – and several EU and worldwide cities are taking the lead to harvest this potential, by implementing mandatory solar rooftop programs. In 2018, the German city of Tübingen introduced a requirement for solar PV to be installed on roofs of buildings wherever cost-effective, with municipally led leasing options for those unable to self-finance the systems. More recently, following the introduction of a solar obligation for new public buildings, the city of Vienna is currently revising its cadastre to address building integrated PV solutions and the combination of solar PV with green roofs, a combination that creates synergies between clean energy, energy efficiency and urban sustainability. In this new mandate, the European Union can take bold action to realize this potential by facilitating the access to finance for local authorities and EU citizens, boosting the renovation of existing buildings, and develop an ambitious strategy for the training and up-skilling of EU workers in the electrical, renewable, and building sector. Skills are a key missing block – altogether, more than 20 million jobs could be created by 2050, with an ambitious policy for sustainable buildings.


  • The transposition by member states of the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive, which requires all new buildings to be NZEBs by January 2021, is not yet complete. Definitions of NZEBs vary widely among member states, making direct comparisons problematic. Further, not all member states include direct renewable energy requirements in domestic legislation.
  • Addressing the energy performance of existing buildings: EU legislation on energy performance of buildings only covers new buildings, which will account for 25% of Europe’s building stock in 2050. As a result, energy renovation rates of existing buildings need to at least triple to meet energy and climate objectives.
  • Slow uptake of solar rooftop installations despite its huge potential in Europe due to lacking access to finance. Need to address re-skilling and upskilling of existing construction and electrical workers, and need to raise awareness among EU citizens.


  • The potential for solar rooftops in Europe is gigantic: At least 600 GW of rooftop capacity remains untapped across the EU.
  • Stepping up energy renovations can play a crucial role to deliver a just and fair transition by securing more than 20 million jobs across the construction sector and unlocking new opportunities local and qualified jobs.
  • Security of supply: Deployment of on-site solar as part of energy renovations can support security of supply of EU regions, cities and citizens, guaranteeing direct renewable energy supply for electric vehicles.
  • The renewable-based electrification of EU buildings boosted with on-site solar installations can provide valuable services to the electricity system.
  • An ambitious strategy to renovate the EU’s building stock would contribute to EU global leadership in clean building technologies such as in building energy performance technology, complex on-site PV solutions and high-tech BIPV products. It would also strengthen Europe’s BIPV manufacturers.

Photos: Copenhagen International Business School/C.F. Moller Architects/ Adam Moerk. 

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